On the right road
Nissan Thailand chief Isao Sekiguchi brings enthusiasm and adaptability to the challenge of keeping the carmaker in tune with changing times.
Isao Sekiguchi loves travelling. Having been based in Thailand since April, the regional executive of Japan's Nissan Motor is now starting to explore the Land of Smiles during the high tourism season.
In late November, Mr Sekiguchi accompanied his wife to Khao Yai in northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province on his first vacation since he took office as president of Nissan Thailand. It was just for a weekend, but enough time to get some fresh air and visit some wineries.
"Khao Yai was our first vacation … like a real holiday," the 49-year-old executive says with a smile. "Khao Yai is not far from Bangkok but it would be horrible if we go there and it's raining all day. So, we thought, let's wait until the dry season."
Not surprisingly given his job, Mr Sekiguchi enjoys driving to test the performance, acceleration and speed of a car. The original plan was to drive to Khao Yai.
"Definitely I want to be a driver. I love driving for five six hours. Unfortunately, my people don't allow me to drive so I need to go with a driver. This is always the challenge working outside of Japan," he giggles, while making a slight complaint.
After the Khao Yai outing, the first three-day weekend in early December was perfect for a short trip to Chiang Mai in the north, with food at the top of the list.
"Going to restaurants has become my weekly routine. This is a way to discover and know the culture, understand the roots, where people are coming from," he tells Asia Focus. "People say I should try the food from Chiang Mai in the North. Then, I need to go there."
As the year draws to a close, Mr Sekiguchi and his wife are planning to visit Udon Thani and its famous Red Lotus Lake at the end of the month. Millions of blooming lotus flowers that stretch across the 600-acre lake, particularly in early morning, enchant visitors in boats at this time of year.
"Obviously, the higher motivation to see the lotus is from my wife. Now you know who is the boss. My wife says, 'I want to go here and here', then I do the logistics," he says, laughing.
Next on the list is a beach break on Koh Samui in southern Surat Thani province. "I normally take some days at the beginning of January for holidays. This time, we're going to spend few days on the beach, just to look at the sea doing nothing," he says.
Thailand is the sixth country where Mr Sekiguchi has been based. Now responsible for 22 markets, he holds another title as Regional Vice-President, Nissan Asean (Marketing & Sales).
Prior to moving to Thailand, he held positions in the United States, Germany, Slovakia, Egypt and Indonesia. "Definitely, wherever I go in the six countries I've lived and worked in, travelling is one of my hobbies. Travelling is one of the best ways to learn, experience the culture and the country, and get to know the people," says Mr Sekiguchi.
"I like to visit Unesco World Heritage sites. Seeing something that has been identified as a unique historical monument or site really fascinates me. It represents something important about a culture or religion.
"The one I have loved the most so far is Petra in Jordan. It's amazing and huge. When you see it, it's like being inside an Indiana Jones movie! Also, the Pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt. Imagine something like that built more than 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, without machinery. That's awe-inspiring."
Young Nissan fan: Isao Sekiguchi in the 1970s with a Nissan Skyline C110. Photo courtesy of Isao Sekiguchi
In his current Bangkok-based role, the major markets under Mr Sekiguchi's responsibility are Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong. "Thailand is one of the biggest markets that we have," he says. "Not just selling cars. Here in Thailand we have manufacturing plants and a research and development (R&D) facility. The cars that we make here are developed by Thai R&D guys. It's the biggest such facility that we have in this area."
With a total of 6,000 employees locally, the Japanese automaker operates two plants in Thailand with a combined manufacturing capacity of 260,000 units. Over half of the Thai output is exported to markets such as Japan, Australia, the Middle East and Africa. Thailand was also the first country outside Japan to handle production of the Nissan e-Power all-electric vehicle, before China was added later.
The Philippines market is also managed by Nissan while Indonesia, Mr Sekiguchi's previous assignment, is under the responsibility of a joint venture after the production facility was closed temporarily as part of a regional rationalisation strategy.
In Malaysia, production and distribution of Nissan cars are overseen by a joint venture with Tan Chong Motor (TCM). Together with the Malaysian partner, Nissan started production in Myanmar in 2017, as well as sales in Cambodia and Laos.
"Across Asean, there is great potential and growing demand for personal mobility." Mr Sekiguchi says. "By 2025, there will be almost 700 million people in Asean, and an estimated 250 million cars on Asean roads within the next few years."
The factors driving this growth, he says, include a rising middle class, while more recently the pandemic has driven interest in personal mobility for increased safety and social distancing.
A 2021 Nielsen report on the pandemic's impact and implications for the automotive industry noted that 87% of people surveyed in Asian markets including Thailand mentioned they would soon be in the market for a new car. Of these, 24% expected to make a purchase within the next six months.
In a recent Frost & Sullivan survey, 64% of respondents across Southeast Asia said they were now more willing to consider an electrified vehicle than they were five years ago. And 66% believe they will inevitably adopt electrified mobility as part of their lives.
The Thai government aims to have electric vehicles (EVs) make up 30% of total car production by 2030, Mr Sekiguchi notes.
"What is needed is greater collaboration between public and private parties to drive further adoption of electrified vehicles," he says. "At the same time, as 'range anxiety' remains a concern, technologies such as e-Power are the perfect bridge solution for Thai and Asean consumers to make the leap to battery electric vehicles (BEV)."
With more than 500,000 self-charging e-Power vehicles sold in Japan alone, EV and e-Power vehicles represent two interconnected pillars of resource-efficient, emissions-reducing technologies that customers can choose depending on their needs.
The Thai automotive market this year, however, has struggled because of the lingering economic impact of the pandemic, as well as a global semiconductor shortage that has affected automotive production worldwide.
Total vehicle sales in Thailand are estimated at between 700,000 and 800,000 units this year, a continued decline from 2020. Sales in August fell 38.8% from a year earlier to a 15-month low of 42,176 units, followed by annualised decreases of 19% and 13% in September and October, respectively.
"This (the drop) is a bit more than what we expected," Mr Sekiguchi acknowledges, adding that the vehicle market is expected to start improving but not to fully recover next year.
Isao Sekiguchi, president of Nissan Thailand and regional vice-president, marketing and sales, Nissan Asean Photo: Sattaphan Kantha
Before joining Nissan in 2014, Mr Sekiguchi worked at Sumitomo Corporation, one of Japan's biggest trading firms, for 19 years in the automotive division. His career in the automotive industry brought him to the US for 10 years, with three years in Germany, four in Slovakia, three in Egypt and two years in Indonesia.
"For me, the country that gave me the most amazing learning experience was Egypt. It was my first time living in Africa, in a Muslim culture where people have a completely different kind of lifestyle," he says, recalling the experience of working alongside people who pray five times a day and work on Sunday while taking Friday and Saturday off. The food is also different.
"I had an app to remind me of the prayer times. And you know I went there at age 41 after returning from Europe. (People say) the more you age the more difficult it is to adapt and accept things."
But Mr Sekiguchi's ability to adapt and evolve makes him a good fit with the automotive industry, which he calls "a huge and ever-changing place of innovation, engineering and modernisation".
"I'm proud to say there are so many things that I like or am inspired by, even after all these years. Of course, I love fast cars, big engines, cool sports cars, the latest technology car launches. I love it all," he says.
"But in my heart, I'm a people person, so I like to think about how cars can change people's lives. To be able to travel to a new job confidently and safely, or to take your family to new places for a holiday, to be able to start a business, or to be a graduation present after so much hard work."
Meanwhile, Mr Sekiguchi is digesting the lessons of the pandemic era and considering the degree of evolution a business needs, along with the "growth signposts" it must observe.
"I believe in the saying, 'If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got'. My focus is on stable growth, so we as a brand must continuously cater to consumer trends," he says.
"One interesting 'threat' -- or opportunity trend -- that caught my attention was the change from the physical to 'phygital' automotive purchase," he explains. "In India, for example, a study showed that 60% of customers mention that they would very likely purchase their next car through a digital dealer set-up. But in Thailand, only 35% would consider buying a car online."
Thai consumers, he says, expect the car buying experience to be a mix of digital and physical. They might do a lot of their research online but they want the physical experience of visiting the dealer to find out more and seeing the car in person.
"It differs between ages and generations, so we need to accommodate and support both," he explains. "This is something we are developing rapidly, and something highlighted and sped up by the pandemic."
Covid-19, says Mr Sekiguchi, has been an unprecedented global event, with broad-ranging impacts that continue to change. "But my personality is, and always has been, to see the opportunities in any challenging situation."
On interesting trend he sees around the world is a decline of interest in ride- or car-sharing, and more concerns, mainly around health, about public transport. But in parallel, young people in particular still think of the ongoing environmental impact of their choices. For example, they don't think owning a car is a must. That differs from the older generations, he explains.
"The way they see an automobile is just a means of transport, nothing more than that, while the people of my generation have more passion for it. I think this is the challenge for Nissan as well -- how to make a car that will make an exciting experience for everyone."
On the other hand, the protracted pandemic has changed perspectives on life for many. "What it has given us is, for example, a renewed focus on family, friends and loved ones. As restrictions made it harder to see our loved ones, it made us wake up to what is important in life.
"For me, my daughter is studying at high school in Singapore, and we have been unable to visit each other. That was tough, and as a parent it puts things sharply in perspective. So, it taught me to really cherish personal and family time."
Asked about his most enjoyable travel experience, Mr Sekiguchi says the Maldives was one of them. "We stayed there on one island, for a week doing nothing. It was very relaxing. And Greece is a great combination of beautiful islands and interesting ancient historical sites."
One country he would love to visit again is Australia. "The Outback and the kangaroos there are great. In the future, I'd love to visit Cambodia, to go to Angkor Wat, another Unesco site. Also, the Philippines and Vietnam are on my list," he adds.
Besides travelling, Mr Sekiguchi loves playing golf. "I have played for about 20 years. It's a sport where you compete against yourself. It's more of a mental game. You're in nature and it's fun, but it's a game of strategy in the sense that you need the finesse to hit the ball where you want it to go," he says.
"The strategy to manage, which club to use and what distance you want to go are also in the mind of the golfer. It depends on the day too, so you need to adjust to your condition. It's part of my personality to strategise, so it suits me. And if it's a bad day, you just keep going or go have a beer!"
When he has free time, Mr Sekiguchi reads books, with leadership a favourite subject. "A book that really impacted me was It Worked for Me, by the late Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state. It's about his life. He is very genuine and authentic," he says.
"I like that his stories are all about people because that's what he values the most. I like biographies and autobiographies -- but especially books about leadership, by great leaders."
When it comes to his personal role model, the Japanese executive points to his late father.
"He was working both in and outside of Japan and he was CEO for a few companies, so I have followed his path," he notes with pride. "He was a good father, a good leader, and someone I look up to. The advice he gave me that stuck with me is to take care of people. Business is all about people.
"One of the other pieces of advice he gave me was, enjoy your work. And I do. The reason is we all get one chance to live. I want to make society more sustainable for the next generations.
"What I like about our company is that we don't just sell cars. We think about future generations and the environment. In my limited capacity, I hope I can leave something positive behind. That is my dream."